Why is the School Principal’s Role so Emotionally Draining?
Blog Post by Dr Helen Kelly, 10th March 2019
There is considerable evidence that school leaders find their work stressful and that, for many, this is impacting on their individual wellbeing. A study into the recruitment and retention of Scottish head teachers (MacBeath, 2012) found that only 9% of respondents felt their personal health and wellbeing was not a concern, while a US study of school principals in 2007 (Shields) found that 83% of respondents reported moderate to high levels of stress. Research from England, during the same period, found that the prevalence of work-related stress of head teachers was double that of the general population and that head teachers suffered significantly worse mental health than other managers and professionals (Phillips et al, 2008). This was mirrored in the 2017 Australian Principal Health and Wellbeing Survey, where school leaders were shown to experience 1.7 times the emotional demands and 1.6 times the burnout of the general population.
Until a decade ago, the conversation about school leader stress focused upon the heavy workload and long hours. This remains relevant with the England Workload Survey 2013, demonstrating that the average UK head teacher works 63.3 hours per week with 20% of their work being carried out at home. However, there is a much greater understanding today of the emotional demands of the role and the impact this can have on wellbeing. There is now much wider recognition that leading schools is an inherently emotional practice, primarily due to the people-centred nature of schools, placing relationships at the heart of the head teacher ́s role. Researchers have focused upon the pivotal position of the principal, around whom all relationships in school oscillate, in order to understand the emotional aspects of the role. The head teacher is an emotional conduit or buffer for the emotions of others, whose role it is to soak up the difficult or unwanted emotional states of the school community. Principals find themselves at a crossroads of different interests, acting as gatekeepers.
The nature of the leadership role, particularly in the high accountability climate of recent years, places high expectations on the leader, which can create fear and anxiety, rendering leaders vulnerable and insecure. This is compounded by the lonely nature of the school leader ́s role, with the necessary boundaries of leadership meaning that a degree of isolation is inevitable.
The complexity and intensity of these experiences means that school leaders are confronted on a daily basis with a range of emotions, both their own and others, which need to be managed. A key part of the leadership role, therefore, concerns managing the emotions of others and ones self, involving emotional labour, as leaders manage their own emotional display by suppressing their feelings in order to emotionally support others or by faking positive emotions to raise the spirits of the community.
Suppression of emotion, to detach from one ́s true feelings, may be a crucial tool to enable school leaders to protect themselves from the emotional demands of the role but, over time, disengaging from the emotions they feel may make significant inroads into their sense of self, leading to them losing the capacity to regulate their feelings and causing emotive dissonance. Burying emotions can be very draining, leaving school leaders vulnerable to emotional exhaustion and burnout, as emotional resources become depleted.
School leaders are also vulnerable to sustaining wounds, caused by the emotional fall-out of day-to-day decision-making. This is compounded by an overdeveloped sense of personal responsibility that many principals feel, where they are unable to balance their own personal needs with those of the role, attempting to live up to the myth of the heroic leader while placing their health at risk.